On this day in legal history, President Richard Nixon fired folks to try to keep a lid on the Watergate scandal. Turns out, that doesn’t work all that well.
On October 20, 1973, the "Saturday Night Massacre" unfolded, marking a pivotal moment in the Watergate scandal and American legal history. Solicitor General Robert Bork, acting on orders from President Richard Nixon, fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. This decision came after both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to carry out the President's directive and subsequently resigned in protest.
The firing was a dramatic response to Cox's insistence on obtaining tape recordings and other documents from the White House as part of his investigation into the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. Nixon had offered a compromise of providing summaries of the tapes, but Cox rejected this offer, demanding the actual tapes. Nixon viewed Cox's refusal as a challenge to his authority, prompting the decision to have him removed.
The event sent shockwaves through the legal community and the nation at large. It led to widespread public outcry, increased scrutiny of Nixon's actions, and a hastening of impeachment proceedings against the President. The episode also raised important questions about the rule of law, executive power, and the constitutional system of checks and balances.
Critically, the Saturday Night Massacre also impacted the Office of the Solicitor General, an institution traditionally seen as independent and non-political. Bork's role in the firing cast a shadow over his later career, including his failed nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Overall, the incident remains a seminal moment in legal history, serving as a cautionary tale about the limits of executive power and the importance of judicial and legal independence–or the hazards of a lack thereto.
Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been ruled to still face $1.1 billion in defamation judgments related to his false claims about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, despite filing for bankruptcy. Judge Christopher M. Lopez of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas decided that the debt could not be discharged under bankruptcy law because state courts in Texas and Connecticut had found Jones' actions to be intentional and malicious. The decision addresses a key question surrounding the bankruptcy case: whether Jones would be able to avoid making full payments to the families of the shooting victims.
Judge Lopez rejected Jones's argument that the court did not have to honor the state court default judgment orders or the resulting damage awards. While Jones can appeal, he remains liable for most of the judgments, unless a settlement is reached. In a second ruling, Lopez allowed that Jones could relitigate some of the amount he must pay in another Sandy Hook-related case involving a smaller sum. Jones had filed for personal bankruptcy in December, following financial liability judgments in Texas and Connecticut. His Infowars parent company, Free Speech Systems LLC, had filed for Chapter 11 protection in July 2022.
The judgments against Jones were default decisions, as he had failed to respond to discovery orders. Jones had argued that the state court findings were insufficient to establish "willful and malicious injury" because they were default judgments. Nonetheless, Judge Lopez affirmed that the defamation liability met the criteria for "willful and malicious injury," rendering it non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), have unveiled a bill that proposes term limits on Supreme Court justices as part of an effort to address concerns about the conservative leanings of the court. The legislation comes amid increased scrutiny following reports that some justices have accepted large gifts from Republican donors without disclosure. The bill is unlikely to advance in the Senate, where Republican opposition has stymied similar Democratic-led initiatives. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted that there is “no indication” that Republicans are interested in supporting such legislation.
The bill proposes that presidents would be able to appoint a new Supreme Court justice every two years. However, only the nine most recently appointed justices would regularly hear federal appeals court cases, which make up the majority of the Supreme Court's caseload. Justices appointed more than 18 years ago would hear cases that fall under the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, like disputes between states, and could serve as alternates in appellate cases when needed.
The legislation would only take effect in the next presidential term after becoming law. This new bill resembles a previous one from Whitehouse, which also proposed an 18-year term limit but used a different mechanism, forcing justices into a less active, senior status after 18 years. Unlike the previous bill, this one preserves lifetime tenure for justices by allowing them to hear original jurisdiction cases and maintain other powers after 18 years.
Speaker candidate Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) proposed doubling the state-and-local tax (SALT) deduction cap from $10,000 to $20,000 in an attempt to gain the support of moderate New York Republicans. The offer was backed by Ways and Means Chair Jason Smith (R-Mo.) and would have been part of an end-of-year tax package. However, the deal was not accepted, according to California Republican Mike Garcia. New York Republicans Andrew Garbarino, Nick LaLota, Anthony D'Esposito, and Mike Lawler have twice voted against Jordan, emphasizing the need for the next House Speaker to be open to raising the SALT cap.
LaLota stressed that the speaker candidate should understand the importance of the SALT issue. Garcia said the proposed cap of $20,000, or $40,000 for joint filers, would be a win for SALT Republicans. Despite this, no formal deal has been made. Jordan encouraged continued negotiations on SALT, aiming to reach a consensus beneficial to the entire GOP conference.
The impasse over the SALT cap is currently stalling a GOP tax package, as several Republicans from high-tax states refuse to move forward without a provision for raising the SALT deduction limit. This threatens bipartisan tax package efforts, which have been a focus of business lobbyists this season.
Federal prosecutors have stated that former U.S. President Donald Trump is not immune from criminal charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. In a court filing, Washington prosecutors argued that neither constitutional provisions nor historical practice grants absolute immunity from criminal prosecution to a former president. Trump, who is currently the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, had claimed in legal filings that his actions during his presidential term from 2017 to 2021 provide him with sweeping immunity from criminal charges.
Trump was charged in August with four felony counts for attempting to interfere in vote counting and block the certification of the 2020 election, which he lost to President Joe Biden. Trump's lawyers argued in an October 5 court filing that he can't be prosecuted for these actions, stating they were aimed at ensuring "election integrity" and were part of his "official responsibilities as President." The case is among four criminal prosecutions Trump faces as he attempts to make a political comeback and regain the White House.
Sidney Powell, a former lawyer for Donald Trump, pleaded guilty to aiding Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Powell pleaded guilty to six counts of conspiracy to commit intentional interference with performance of election duties, a misdemeanor. She has agreed to testify against Trump and the other 16 co-defendants if prosecutors request her testimony. The Georgia case is one of four criminal cases Trump currently faces, two of which focus specifically on his attempts to overturn his election loss.
Powell's plea comes just before her scheduled trial on charges that include racketeering and conspiracy to commit election fraud. As part of her plea agreement, she is expected to be sentenced to six years of probation. Powell admitted to plotting to unlawfully access secure election machines in Coffee County, Georgia, in January 2021.
The guilty plea represents a significant win for Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, as it means her team gains the cooperation of a key figure in Trump's efforts to contest the election. Prosecutors claim that Powell and other co-defendants tampered with electronic ballot markers and accessed data from Dominion Voting Systems, a claim that Powell and other Trump allies had falsely made against the company. If Kenneth Chesebro, another lawyer tied to Trump, proceeds to trial, it could offer Trump's legal team insights into the prosecution's case against him.
The Law School Admission Council announced that it will remove the "logic games" section from the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) starting in August 2024. This section, officially known as analytical reasoning questions, has been a contentious part of the exam since its inclusion in 1982. The council plans to replace these games with more logical reasoning questions, which already exist on the test. Reactions from lawyers and law students are mixed, ranging from approval to disappointment. UC Berkeley law professor Orin Kerr supported the decision, stating that logic games do not adequately test the skills necessary for legal practice. Conversely, Yale Law School professor Taisu Zhang argued that the games add an enjoyable and relevant component to the test.
The decision to remove the logic games section comes after a 2019 settlement with two blind LSAT takers who argued that the section was not accessible to them and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The council had four years to make revisions based on this settlement. Some LSAT tutors have said that the logic games section provides the best opportunity for test-takers to improve their scores because it is highly teachable through practice. Supporters of keeping the section argue that it tests skills relevant to legal practice and demonstrates a candidate's willingness to work hard.